By Mycle Schneider
PARIS, May 23, Kyodo
U.S. President Barack Obama will be visiting Hiroshima on Friday and attention will focus on the legacy of the atomic bombing in 1945 and the continuing danger of nuclear weapons today.
The White House has indicated that the president “will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”
Any vision of a shared and safe human future without nuclear weapons must include reflecting on a related technology, created in large part by the United States — the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.
The first visit by an American president to the site of the first atomic bombing will be sixty years to the day after the opening in the same city of the first major public relations initiative of the nuclear establishment in Japan, under U.S. government control.
On May 27, 1956, the Atoms for Peace Exhibit opened at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. The event drew large crowds. It was designed by the U.S. and Japanese governments to help prepare the ground for the introduction of a nuclear power program in Japan, presented as “key to the future.”
Four years later, construction started on the country’s first electricity generating atomic plant, the Japan Power Demonstration Reactor.
In 1976, twenty years after the memorable exhibit opened its doors in Hiroshima, physics Nobel Prize winner Hannes Alfven justified his opposition to nuclear power by affirming that you could not separate military and civilian applications of nuclear energy, as “’atoms for peace’ and ’atoms for war’ are Siamese twins.”
Indeed, most of the 31 countries currently operating nuclear power plants have had military nuclear research programs at one point in time. These include not only notorious countries like Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Iraq and South Africa but also little “suspicious” nations like Sweden and Switzerland.
The historical nuclear weapons states United Kingdom and France never made a secret of the systemic interconnections between civil and military uses.
The United Kingdom has withdrawn fissile materials countless times from Euratom safeguards to use for military purposes. France used Electricite de France, the largest nuclear power generator in the world, to provide the military with plutonium. The La Hague reprocessing plant, that also processed Japanese spent fuel, separated plutonium for the French army.
Two American post-doc students have demonstrated in the so-called Nth Country Experiment during the 1960s that — even then, long before the Internet — it was possible to elaborate the design of a nuclear explosive device on the basis of public literature.
The essential barrier was and remains the availability of weapons-usable nuclear materials. Ridding the world of nuclear weapons therefore ultimately means abandoning the production and use of highly enriched uranium, the primary ingredient of the Hiroshima bomb, and plutonium that devastated Nagasaki.
President Obama warned at the 2016 Security Summit that “just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an apple — could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people.”
Japan’s justification for the buildup of a plutonium economy — with the Rokkasho reprocessing plant as the centerpiece — does not hold. Plutonium fuels could cover at best around one percent of the country’s final energy consumption, hardly a pathway towards energy independence.
Admitting to the industrial, economic and political failure of the plutonium strategy takes courage. The continued production and stockpiling of primary material equivalent to thousands of nuclear weapons, however, is the ultimate exhibit of Atoms for Peace as a pipe dream.
(Mycle Schneider is an international analyst on energy and nuclear policy based in Paris. He is the convening lead author of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report and a member of the Princeton University-based International Panel on Fissile Materials.)